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Disgrifiad

FOLLOWING THE FLAME

Roddy Llewellyn Interview
(on his life, and that of his father, the show-jumper Sir Harry Llewellyn)

My name is Roddy Llewellyn. I live in Warwickshire. I’ve lived all over the shop, actually. I’ve lived a rather peripatetic life since I got married thirty years ago. We’ve moved house nine times, never again. I’m a landscape architect, I’m an author, I’m a freelance journalist and a public speaker.

a magic that has never left me

I did quite a lot of telly in the old days. I started off with TV AM with David Frost and his gang way back, with Anne Diamond. It was an awful long time ago, early ‘80s it may have been, roughly the same time that I started off as a journalist in ’81, a gardener correspondent for The Star, later to become the gardener correspondent for The Mail On Sunday. I presented a number of gardening shows, including one on some of the great castles of Wales and that was all fascinating. I wish I could do more, actually.

How did I get into gardening in the first place? Nanny, who is now 102, gave me a packet of seeds, age three. I remember holding her hand, walking down to the summer house at the bottom of the garden and out of her pockets she produced a packet of seeds and she proceeded to pour them into the palm of her hand. I’ll never forget these tiny little black dots. Age three, of course, you do what all grown-ups do, you just accept it, you don’t question it. With her other hand, she sprinkled them in the ground like this, and I’ll never forget the sense of complete magic seeing these little green shoots come up as a result of sprinkling a little tiny black dot. They were annual asters, and there was also one tulip bulb. It was always more exciting than Punch and Judy or the magician produced at children’s parties, and it’s a magic that has never left me. I’ve still got it today. So, I was terribly lucky, in that respect, which is why it’s terribly important, I think, that all young children are exposed to as many different experiences as possible, just in case one ignites a little spark of interest for later life.

we never saw him much

My father, well, we never saw much of him. He was quite a strict dad, it has to be said, but then, you mustn’t forget that my father’s generation had been brought up by parents with Victorian values. He wasn’t a hugely huggy Dad which everybody is today, so that was just the way it was. It was the same for everyone else in my generation. I do remember one of my first experiences was ragging about on the lawn and I looked up my mother’s skirt and I noticed that she was wearing black knickers. My parents were away, abroad, show jumping, pair jumping around Europe (pair jumping was jumping the same jump together, as it were) and we had broad Welsh accents because Nanny was the main person in our life who is Welsh. So, my brother Dai and I had broad Welsh accents and, so the story goes, I was supposed to have said, “Nanny, why is our Mother wearing black knickers?” She said, “Don’t worry, love, she is in mourning for the King.” So that puts it at about 1952. Yes, I think George VI died in ‘52, the Coronation was ’53, so that was my first memory.

I remember my dad always being a sort of distant figure and we were all quite frightened of him, actually, but that was just the way it was. I do remember his gold medal and how incredibly excited people were. We, like so many other people in those days, got a television for the Coronation and used to stare at this test card which did nothing. There was a little girl with long hair and lots of squares and things and we used to stare at it, nobody saying anything and nothing happening, just out of pure amazement. Again, it was a sort of magic.

I remember seeing him get his gold and everyone jumping up and down and getting very excited and then we made him a little pin cushion in little pins which we stuck in saying, “Welcome home”, and he kept it by his bed actually until the day he died, by which time the pins had gone very rusty.

more on the telly than in reality

Inheritance, from my dad? Not much, actually. I’m more like my mother. I’m more interested in the arts than he was. He was quite blinkered in his approach to competition. A lot of very successful people are. They don’t allow anything else to get in the way, including their children and family. He just looked straight ahead and I think you have to if you’re hugely competitive. You can’t let your concentration wander for a second as you’re going around the ring trying to win a gold medal for your country. It’s pure concentration. He didn’t let anything get in his way, to distract him from his goal.

It’s difficult to analyse your feelings when you’re very young but there was my father being a great star on a horse. I remember more particularly seeing him in Madame Tussauds and there he was, my father, but not my father. They’re all scaled down, sort of slightly smaller than they are in reality, like the set of Coronation Street which I gather is two thirds or three quarters of real size. So, there he was, standing there, not moving, not talking, so that was rather odd. I remember he got this letter from Monsieur Tussaud of the day that said, “Dear Colonel Llewellyn, I’m terribly sorry to have to tell you but we’re going to melt you down to make James Hanratty, but if it makes you feel any better we’re going to melt you down with Marilyn Monroe.” I can’t find the letter! What they do afterwards is that they cut their heads off and put them in the basement. Everybody who has been a wax figure in Madame Tussauds, the heads are all on miles and miles of shelves in the basement. I did write to Monsieur Tussaud and asked him for a copy of the letter but he said, “The archives are such that we can’t find it, sadly”. It would have made a marvellous letter for the loo!

he was the thing

With the advent of the television in the fifties and sixties, show jumping was very widely watched. It was one of the most popular things on the television. Again things have totally changed and show jumping is now branded as elitist, but, in those days, it was incredibly popular and that, of course, helped to make the name and in a way created my father’s fame. It’s interesting to think, back in those days my father was the David Beckham of Britain. He was the sporting hero, he didn’t strip half-naked for magazines but you didn’t do things like that in those days, and he wasn’t emblazoned over t-shirts because no one had heard of a t-shirt, but he was the thing. People I meet now today, especially women, their eyes glaze over and they go slightly wobbly at the knee and they say, “I remember your father and Foxhunter”.

a second son of a second son

Father’s Knighthood 1977 was for Services to Sport. He had inherited the Baronety a year later, so in fact, he was Sir Sir Harry!

My great grandfather started off as a farmer and found coal on his land and it was my grandfather who then became the huge coal magnet and, based in Aberdare. He owned most of the huge amount of coal mines in South Wales, and bought his Baronetcy at the going rate of, I think, thirty thousand pounds in 1922, which is why I’ve got, it now. I’m a second son of a second son, so it’s gone sideways twice. I was never expecting it, not that it’s made any difference to my life. My grandfather died in 1940. He had been worth, so they say, fourteen million in 1934 which was a huge amount of money, vastly rich, and both my grandparents had their own chauffeurs and their own Rolls Royces. It was a wonderful life they lived, in The Court, St Fagan’s which has now been gobbled up by the suburbs in Cardiff. Gertrude Jekyl designed their garden and when my grandfather died, so they say, he died with gambling debts. He had over 70 horses in livery, so my dad did have the most wonderful selection of horses to choose from. Don’t forget, he also rode in the Grand National in 1936 and 1937.

understanding horses

Out of all the domesticated, more intelligent mammals I think I’m right in saying that man can successfully somehow create between themselves some sort of mental understanding, I think that certainly was the case with my father, he sort of understood horses. There are very horsey people around, who seem to have that sort of extraordinary relationship with a horse and I think all the most successful competitive horse people do have that relationship and my father certainly did with Foxhunter. Foxhunter was, in any case, an extraordinary exceptional horse. He used to have his mane plaited lying down in a stable. You almost seemed to be able to talk to him. I remember even as a child almost being able to talk to him; he was like an uncle and it was an agony when he died.

You were sent off to Prep school. You never really met your parents in those days. I rather wish I’d introduced myself before they died but it’s too late now! I was making my bed. It was the first thing on the news; there were immensely important things going on in the world then (Suez was around that time), and it was the first thing on the news that Foxhunter had died, and I fell into my half-made bed in tears when I heard this. The next time I saw him was in the paper, his skeleton, in The Daily Telegraph which, so far as I’m aware, is still in the Royal Veterinary College in London. Foxhunter was almost human. He was a truly extraordinary animal. I miss him still.

father was god

I remember bus loads of children coming to visit Foxhunter and this little girl touched Foxhunter’s mouth and she stared at her hand and she said, “I touched Foxhunter”, and she said, “I’ll never wash again!” He was just a magic national figure. He was a national treasure. They both were in their own way, individually, because they were both a bit like the Beatles. The Beatles were all individually interesting and certainly Foxhunter and my father were, too, if I may use a rather poor analogy. I think that was the case. Quite recently, I was at a family do in Suffolk (my mother’s family come from Suffolk). The taxi driver was a young man from South Wales and he was just driving us from the church to the house and he said, “Your Father was God in South Wales”, and that was only two years ago. Interesting.

It never bothered me. I remember when I was very young, you used to travel on the train and you had your name, Llewellyn, on the leather suitcase on the nice old netted thing you had in those days. Do you remember? With views of Porthcawl. You don’t get that anymore. And people used to look up and say, “Oh Llewellyn. Are you any relation to Colonel Harry Llewellyn”, and I used to deny it because I was so fed up of having to answer that barrage of questions like, “Oh, what’s he like?” Even from a very young age, I used to deny any connection, rightly or wrongly.

a monied background

It’s very very different from the world today. Most people competing at major events like the Olympics had money. There wasn’t sponsorship. It helped enormously, of course, that my grandfather had over seventy horses in livery. That came in useful and vital actually. I’ve been looking at the photographs of people around those days and they were all from the monied background, interestingly enough, totally different from today. It’s not necessarily right but it’s just the way it was.

sir harry’s greatest achievements

In 1936, he came fourth in the National riding Ego, and in 1937, he came second as favourite. He would have won had a loose horse not run across him over the last fence and that would have been extraordinary, for a man to have won the National as a jockey and the only gold medal for GB at Helsinki in 1952 show jumping. But it didn’t happen. It very nearly did.

In London 1948, I’m one. I’m still four in 1952. We’re watching it on the telly and everyone was terribly over-excited, and I can hardly remember it, actually. I can remember locking my brother up in a cage with a muscovy duck and that was terribly exciting. It was almost more exciting than watching my father on the telly! You know what I mean, when your that age you don’t really take on the full significance of an event.

The first round he did was a bit of a disaster but the fact of the matter was that the success of the team fulcrummed on him. Can you imagine, “If I get a clear round I’ll get a gold medal; if I don’t I won’t.” It was very close and he did, so he got it. It was extraordinary.

The gold medal was the most exciting part of his show jumping career. It was stolen with all his fabulous collection of cups. Because he got the King George V Cup three times, he was given a silver gilt replica. That was stolen and the Daily Mail Cup and all the other cups, fabulous cups, and the gold medal, all stolen. He built a swimming pool on the insurance money proceeds, so it wasn’t all bad.

one hundred percent welsh

I think he could only feel completely Welsh because both his parents were. My grandmother, Granny Llewellyn loved wholly and unreservedly each one of her twenty-one grandchildren. None of us knew our grandfather because he died so young, early on in 1940, and her father had been a Baptist Minister, the very reverend Henry Highly Harris who could translate ancient Greek into Welsh and vice versa, very academic, and he was quite a close friend of Christmas Evans who was a great clerical figure at the time. The Llewellyn’s come from Aberdare, the farm was in the Aberdare area and, therefore, my father was one hundred percent Welsh. His roots were very much there.

I mean it’s lovely to have roots. I was brought up in Wales, in a charming little stone early manor house and then we moved to Llanfair, and then I was sent off to boarding school at the age of seven, and that sort of confuses one a bit and cuts off your roots. But now I do feel that I have very deep Welsh roots.

don’t mention the war

He never talked about himself. He never talked about the war. He never talked. He did tell me he did actually enjoy the war. He fought with Montgomery from Alamein on. He was the first officer in to Brest “when”, as he told me, “there was only a nipple left”. He used to swap fabulous furniture for jars of coffee and found wine cellars brimming with delicious vintage wines as the Germans fled.

We used to have a house on a Balearic Island called Formentera and I once found father and his army servant Trooper Redding - ‘Ivor the Driver’ as he was affectionately known - sitting in a sand dune, heating up beef in an old army cooking pan, talking about Alamein where they’d met Alamein. ‘Ivor the Driver’ is still alive, I don’t know how old he is.

He was a frightfully-successful good all-rounder, you know. Difficult being the son of someone like that, I suppose. Yes, I think so, probably. I’m not sure that I’m sure. No, it’s odd. I think because we were so frightened of him perhaps, we didn’t dare think about him too much. I don’t know. People with successful, famous fathers can turn out to be rather hopeless cases. I’ve escaped the worst!

celebrity

Despite his huge fame and national importance to the whole of Britain in the 1950s, it slowly petered out. It happens. It’s very interesting this business of celebrity, being a household name, very few names when you come to think of it actually make it through forever. There were household names in the Victorian and Edwardian eras that none of us have heard of - Sarah Bernhardt perhaps, and obviously there are other major figures like Oscar Wilde and so on - but very very few make it through the whole way. That’s just the nature of the beast.

I simply can’t begin to understand this new fashion celebrity thing. It doesn’t appear to me that anyone who gains celebrity has done anything particularly interesting. In my day - I’m sounding like a grumpy old man now, but I don’t care - people used to do wonderful things for charity and write fabulous books and be an extraordinarily-beautiful actress and they were household names, but today, you only have to jump up and down and talk a lot of nonsense and you’re automatically a celebrity. The thing that I do find faintly depressing is that I’ve never heard of any of them.

In the case of my father, he really did deserve his fame, his celebrity status, if you like, but they fade. I hope he is remembered for the amazing things that he did. I hope, for instance, that they do put signs up to Foxhunter’s grave, up the Blorenge, and I hope that they do hold an exhibition for him, perhaps a permanent one because he’s really become part of Welsh heritage.

missing a trick in wales

Perhaps it’s the other way around. It’s the fact that people don’t remember that they need to be reminded that Wales does have its heroes and there should be some sort of memorial for them, they should be remembered, if only because that extraordinary horse and my father together gave such extraordinary pleasure and a real feeling of pride, Welsh pride.

the end

I don’t think he stopped immediately but, of course, Foxhunter did die in 1959, only seven years after the gold medal. I remember Foxhunter being produced at all the country shows around England because people just wanted to see him. He was led around the ring because people just wanted to see him.

He died of colic and they tried to save him by suspending him in the air on the straps but it was too late. His hide is buried in a little grave on the Blorenge by Blaenavon, between Blaenavon and Abergavenny, and his skeleton is in the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in London.

I’ll never forget when my father died. ‘Ivor the Driver’s’ job was to scatter my father’s ashes on to Foxhunter’s grave out of this rather magnificent Meissen pot. I’ve never scattered ashes but I gather the art of doing so is to pretend you’re feeding the chickens, a little bit at a time, but ‘Ivor the Driver’ turned the whole thing upside down and it all went splodge in one go, and then it started to rain so the ashes all turned into a sort of gluey porridge which sat there for a very long time. He died in the November and the memorial service was the following February in London, and Ivor came out to me and he said, “The Colonel won’t leave Foxhunter alone. He won’t leave his side! “ I went up the other day and all of the ashes have been washed away.

appreciation

I’m just the son of a great man. It was sort of in your face all the time really, growing up. Funnily enough, the older I get the more I appreciate his extraordinary achievements. A child can’t live vicariously on his father’s achievements. He has to get on and do his own thing. He once said to me, “There are two different sorts of people in life. There are passengers and there are drivers”, and he said to me, “You’re a driver”, and I took that as a huge compliment.

last words

Father, competitive, frightening, successful. Me, over sentimental - I cry every time I watch The Sound of Music, which is quite sad really - unambitious, fun-loving, I suppose.


(interview conducted by Phil Cope, Monday 5 September 2011)

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